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To cork on not to cork?

George Taber did extensive research into the best closures for wines for his new book To Cork or Not To Cork?

America (Country Appellation)

To cork or not to cork?
George Taber wrote the book on it

Are prejudice and extreme positions for cork or screwcap prevailing? Well...yes and no.

by Eleanor & Ray Heald
October 26, 2007

Like the alcohol percentage in wine debate, the issue of appropriate closures has also amped up. In its ongoing effort to ensure balanced editorial on important topics, APPELLATION AMERICA continues to post well-studied thoughts by opinion makers.

George M. Taber, author of Judgment of Paris (2005) has just released his second, well-researched book, To Cork or Not to Cork (Scribner, NY, October 2007), in which he reports that an expert wine taster can note cork taint when only one part per trillion (ppt) is present in a wine. An average consumer will usually detect it at about five ppt. As a point of comparison, "one ppt is equivalent to one second in 320 centuries," he details. "But it's enough to ruin a bottle of wine."

No one knows precisely when the first cork was inserted as the closure for a wine bottle. A good estimate is that for four centuries, natural cork has been the wine bottle closure of choice. Yet, in the 1980s, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which was identified in that decade by a Swiss researcher, began to cause cork-taint problems that nearly forced some wineries out of business.

In the August 20, 2007 APPELLATION AMERICA posting "To Screw Cap Wine Bottles or Not", Tablas Creek Vineyard General Manager Jason Haas said, "Industry estimates range from three percent to as high as 10 percent of corks are tainted.
Author George M. Taber.
Even at three percent, this is a very large number of bottles that are ruined each year. For a winery the size of Tablas Creek, this means that we could potentially release over 5,000 compromised bottles."

According to Taber, cork's critics consider that failure rate to be "both outrageous and unacceptable. They repeatedly argue that if three percent to five percent of Toyota cars or IBM computers failed, those companies would be out of business."

How did the cork taint problem get so bad and why has it been allowed to go on so long? There’s two answers for that: the historical one and the scientific one.

Historically, Taber lays cork taint escalation directly at the feet of the Portuguese cork supply industry. He begins his historical details in the late 1960s with the research of Hans Tanner at the Wädenswil Institute in Switzerland, then time warps to his personal visit to the Portuguese wine industry in 1975, as a continuation of his work on the taint problem. Back then, Tanner noticed workers boiling batches of corks in caldrons of chlorinated water to bleach them and suspected that this caused the TCA problem.

According to Taber, after publishing his study, Tanner received a letter from the head of Gütlig Corks stating he should not have done this because "it would give cork a bad image." Taber questioned Tanner 25 years later asking why he believed that the Portuguese cork industry ignored his work. The answer: "They felt that if they ignored the problem, it would go away. They were also afraid that if they examined their corks, too many of them would be rejected."

Taber comments that "Given the [Portuguese cork] industry's inability to control the quality of its product and [since it had a] market monopoly for closures, it's not surprising that the cork industry as a whole chose to do nothing and to blame any problems on its consumers or just ignore them." Taber concludes that this attitude caused two decades of delay in action to alleviate the problems identified in 1981.

Nowhere in any wine trade journal have we read such a biting condemnation of the Portuguese cork industry. We asked Taber if he believed that this may be because trade journals depend on cork supply advertising, and they too, ignored the issue. Taber says that he can't speak for industry publications, yet adds, " There is no question that the Portuguese cork industry is a very big advertiser in many wine publications, and the division of what journalists call “church and state” is not always as clear as it should be in wine publications. Editorial decisions are clearly sometimes made on the basis of advertising. That having been said, some publications or journalists have taken strong stands on the issue. One that comes immediately to mind is James Laube of Wine Spectator, who is strongly anti-cork. His publication, though, has not been totally on one side of the issue."

The Long Search For Solutions

Chapters that Taber dedicates to TCA problem solutions read like a David Baldacci page-turning novel. In addition to a scathing attack on the Portuguese cork trade, he tackles the French cover-up of its corked wines, including Champagnes, in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, in the same time frame, with California winemakers literally shouting for a closure other than natural cork, or the plastic alternatives which were then available, Supreme Corq was born with Murphy-Goode in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley, St Francis in Sonoma, Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz and Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State offering guidance in product development.

We spoke with St. Francis Winery winemaker Tom Mackey who said that in 1995, using the beige/tan cork color, he switched to Supreme Corq for all bottlings. Before that, from 1992 to 1995, he used Cellucork.

"After 15 years of using synthetic closures and testing others," Mackey says, "we believe that the perfect closure has yet to be invented. That said, we have been and continue to use Supreme Corq for St. Francis Sonoma County
Natural corks still control more than 80 percent of the market for wine bottle closures.
wines since they provide a good seal and are virtually taint free. We have been using natural corks for our Artisan Wines and the new Wild Oak brand for the past two years. We believe natural corks provide better aging in wines past eight or nine years of bottling. Cork taint is not eradicated but is much lessened from 10 to 15 years ago. We will continue to experiment with new closures in the years to come."

With better mouse traps always in order, competition created Neocork, Nomacork and others. Yet today, natural corks still control more than 80 percent of the market for wine bottle closures. However, Portuguese cork producers can no longer ignore alternatives. And, truth be told, winemakers can't continue to ignore problems such as lack of tight fit, when there are now alternatives with which to avoid wine oxidation. One element, however, is clear. "Supreme Corq," writes Taber, "created greater public awareness of cork's problems by offering the wine world and its customers a credible solution."

Taber explains conditions other than natural corks that can result in tainted wines. Along with research that proved TCA is the cause of cork taint, it was
St. Francis Winery’s Tom Mackey
discovered that a TCA first molecular cousin, 2,3,4,6-t

READER FEEDBACK: To post your comments on this story, click here

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [9]

David Swartzentruber , Wine writer
Thanks for mentioning Alcoa's glass stopper, "VinSeal." It always seems to get overlooked in the closure debate. Glass stoppers are attractive, reasonably-priced, and you don't need a special tool (corkscrew) to open the bottle. I have read that at one time Chateau Lafite used glass stoppers to seal its wines.

Renie Steves , Journalist
Freelance, Fort Worth, TX
I am continually amazed at the depth of Appellation America articles....from corks to direct shipping to Virginia and to China. Have been lucky enough to experience wines in Virginia and China so can relate to the writers’ passion. But I just visited some North Carolina wineries and you haven't written about those yet! Congratulations on your newsletter. I so enjoy it!
~ Renie Steves

Chris Howell , GM/Winemaker
Cain Vineyard & Winery, St. Helena, CA
The people who are responsible for cork taint are not just the cork producers, but also the wineries who accept the corks as they are. At Cain, we use corks because we believe in them. We believe in the positive interactions between the cork and the wine -- even a wine that has been in the bottle for just 12 months. Nonetheless, the relatively low standard of QC that has prevailed in the past (1-5% defective corks) makes the use of corks indefensible. In what other field would we tolerate that level of defects? It is clear that, to continue to use corks, we must reduce that level of 'defects' to well below 1% -- ideally below 1/10th of a percent, or less. This is the responsibility first of all of those of us winemakers who buy corks and use them in our wines. If enough of us are inflexible in our demand, our suppliers will respond.

George Vare , owner
Vare Vineyards, Napa, CA
Terrific article! I'll get the book, because the issue is of great concern to me, as the following thoughts indicate:
> A worse issue with TCA is that the compound may exist in a wine at a subliminal level such that the fruit character of the wine is killed resulting in a "dull" wine that has no redeeming graces. In this case, the consumer does not recognize the "corked" issue, rather blames the producer.

Enter Vare Vineyards. As a brand new winery offering a variety of wine, Ribolla Gialla, that few people have heard of, let alone tried. We cannot afford the exposure to TCA in a subliminal situation. We want people to enjoy this "new" varietal and our wine and not be put off by a matter "beyond our control" with the resulting negative accruing to us or the varietal. Thus, we took control. Our wines are sealed with a synthetic cork made by Nomacorc. In truth, we would have used a screw cap, but the glass companies have been slow to produce a variety of glass accepting screw caps especially in the 500 ML size which we use. This situation is changing as the wine world progresses in addressing the "corked" problem. Since we are only producing white wines, we are not concerned about the questions of long term ageing benefits with screw caps or synthetic corks. These closures have worked quite well for us, and we have had no kickback from consumers or the wine trade.
~ George

Heather Griffin
Summit Lake Vineyards, Howell Mountain - Napa, CA
One aspect that many people have not thought about in the "great cork debate" is where the cork comes from. It is a natural product that has been farmed for centuries, and is a cornerstone of a vast natural habitat. It may be of great interest for people to visit the January-February 2007 issue of Audubon. "Cork Screwed" is an in depth article on cork farming and points out that the decline in cork demand is threatening many farming families that have grown cork for generations, as well as the diverse species that have depended on these trees for years and years. I realize that cork has its flaws, as many natural products do, but with consumer education, and some understanding of where things come from, I think people will understand the value of real cork.

Ron Eyford , President
ExceCorc Canada, Canada
Interesting article. As a supplier of the proven best synthetic "corc" in the world, this article is quite precise in its details regarding the other closures. One point that may have been missed is: When referencing natural corks, there's a slight misnomer, as there is a huge percentage of "corks" that are in fact 'semi-synthetic' because they are ground up cork pieces that are glued back together... Also (good point) about environmental impact, in a perfect world, will the semi-synthetics be more toxic than the HDPE type, and/or how will the materials used to produce screw caps break down...? I would agree, there is now more science involved in producing a good quality wine and there's (3) three obvious choices available to wine producers to finish there laborious, loving product. Yet, in the end which closure is the most cost effective, efficient solution that is appreciated and accepted by the consumer will win out. Cheers!

John Paul , winemaker
Cameron Winery, Dundee, OR
This article is well written and I think really covers all sides of the issue. I am having far less trouble with cork taint the last couple of years than previously, partly because I require the supplier to give me sufficient samples from proposed bales which I can test myself. I've definitely had problems with oxidation when using artificial closures but support their use in wines meant for immediate consumption. My comparative studies indicate that degradation of white wine can be detected with plastic closures within a year of bottling. I might add that I am one of those "green" people who support corks as emanating from a renewable resource which also has supported thousands of small family farms on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries.

Tony Welsh
Houston, TX
It seems that some of the TCA results not from the cork itself but from chlorine and other chemicals used to clean the cork, vats, pipes, etc. I wonder whether it is known that there are various nanotech alternatives to this used of chlorine in the works. Just a thought.

Sancho Panza
D.Quixote, Andalucia
Cork it's a natural product, that lets the wine breathe.Looks like mr.Taber is trying to bring down the Portuguese cork industry, with some of his comments.I only buy wine that has been bottled with a cork.

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